Cruise Tips
April 7, 2005 6:36 AM   Subscribe

What's the best tip you can offer a newbie cruise-ship traveller to help him get the most from his first cruise vacation?

I'm particularly curious about ways to ease the embarkation/debarkation process, though I'm a newb like I said, so maybe there are more important things I should be curious about.
posted by deshead to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you have not already read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, please do so. It's a little negative and snarky but overall is does describe a lot of the procedures and policies and it's pretty funny writing besides.
posted by jessamyn at 6:54 AM on April 7, 2005

Biggest potential hassle on disembarkation I can think of is if you've run up your on-ship tab to more than your credit card company will allow as a charge. Make sure you've got plenty of breathing room on your card, another card as a backup, or plenty of cash.

Oh yeah, you'll most likely go through customs after you disembark. Depending on where you stopped, the scrutiny from customs may be heavier than you're used to.

Other than that, it's hard not to enjoy yourself. Get out of the stateroom as much as possible, you should only be in there to sleep.

One more quick tip - on most cruise lines there isn't a hard limit on how many appetizers/entrees/desserts you can have. Feel free to order two entrees if you just can't decide between them.
posted by de void at 6:54 AM on April 7, 2005

I have been on four cruises on three different cruiselines and my experience with boarding and disembarking has been fairly smooth. The boarding seems to go smoother than the disembarking. When you arrive you hand off your luggage and it shows up at your room sometime later that evening. Be sure to carry on anything you will need in the next several hours, like medicine or a change of clothes.
As for disembarking, it is a little more chaotic. They are trying to get 3,000 passengers' luggage off all at once. Leaving before your suggested time is pointless. If you are divided into, say, 10 groups and you are fifth, they will not prevent you from leaving first, but your luggage is not going to come out until all four prior groups' luggage, so you get to stand on the dock and wait. You would be better off leaving later than your group, and be assured your luggage will be out there before you are.
My only other advice would be to take a good look at any off-ship activities you are signing up for. Often the travel to and from some sight-seeing spot takes up more time than spent at the site.
I have always had a great time. Enjoy!
posted by juggler at 7:11 AM on April 7, 2005

Embarkation didn't seem any different from flying. Lines here and there, checking of documents, waiting until they call your bording group. I was on a small (less than 1000 person) ship, so your experience may be different. Bring a carry on bag with everything you'ld want for a couple hours.

On the menu or not, they may have standards (shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, etc) available every night if nothing on the appetizer menu appeals to you.
posted by true at 7:13 AM on April 7, 2005

When we joined the family for a Christmas cruise this year in Hawaii, we learned quite a bit. Here are some tips (apologize for the length):

1) Think of the ship as your floating "base camp/main transportation". You need to use it for is sleeping and eating and storing your gear.

2) On our cruise experience, the only things you weren't charged for: sleeping, eating, maid service, extra towels for the beach, on-board entertainment. Things that were overcharged: drinks, off-ship excursions, anything in the shops, phone, internet, photos taken by ship's photographer.

3) How we (the poor, adventure-seeking relatives) got around that:

- I researched all of the ports (Lonely Planet and Virtual Tourist are great online resourses...especially Lonely Planet Thorntree. I once planned a month long backpacking trip through China using Thorntree.) Figured out who had the cheapest rent-a-cars (generally a local outlet with no brand name recognition), cost of public transportation and the proximity of each port to fun stuff you could walk to. Looked for motor scooter and mountain bike rentals. Only helpful if I knew that crime was at a minimum, however.

-Booked excursions separately in advance or when we werein port. Much cheaper and often more fun! For example, we discovered that we could rent snorkle gear for $20 each for the week at our port of origin and return it after the cruise. We also did a "beach crawl"...rented a cheap jeep and got a map and went from beach to beach on the "local" side of the island. Talked to a lot of locals and found some great snorkling that way.

-At each port, we got away from the ship and into town. The taxi drivers and tour operators who meet the ship will generally take advantage of the uncertainty of tourists and quote very high rates...I don't blame them. That is good business for them and many people appreciate not having to make decisions. But it isn't my cup of tea, so live and let live.

-We smuggled our own alcohol on board. Yes, I am a bad, bad girl. It became a game for all of us to see who was successful. The ship security would confiscate any alcohol found in your luggage or carry-on's...they make a lot of money off of overcharging for drinks on board. Hard alcohol is easier to smuggle than beer or wine (looks clear, less odor). I had the winning smuggle combination. Take a large saline solution bottle with you off of the ship and leave a large empty water bottle in your room. On land, buy a small bottle of vodka, pry off the top of the saline solution bottle with a nail file and fill it with vodka. Put cap back on. Buy a regular bottle of water on land but only drink a little bit of it. Pack it all in with your gear when you return to the ship. When you go through security, they will focus on the bottle of water because that is how EVERYONE ELSE tries to smuggle. They will sniff the water and may pour a bit out to taste it! Well, you've got just water so they will wave you on through. Empty your saline solution bottle into your "collection bottle" in the room and use the punch, OJ, etc. provided in the dining area (ours was open 24/7) to mix drinks. Salut! Repeat as many times as necessary. If you are very partial to rum, etc., buy little airplane bottles (make sure you DON'T open them before smuggling them) and hide them in deep pockets of clothes you have on or...ahem...the cleavage of a sports bra works well. If you are REALLY nervous about the saline solution thing, um....throw a box of condoms in the same bag as the saline solution bottle, preferably on TOP of the bottle so security hits these first. And make sure to get in line with the youngest, shyest looking security guard. I have never seen security close my bag so fast.

If you don't drink, um...sorry for the above. Ignore those last instructions entirely.

Embarkation/debarkation was not a very big problem. They gave us a photo ID which was used for paying for everything onboard and which got us back on the ship when we left. At the end of the cruise, we tagged our luggage with colored tags that they gave us (according to cabin #). We left the ship when they announced our color and the luggage for that group of passangers was set out. This alleviated a mad dash from all passengers at once and went quite smoothly. Tie something very distinctive on your luggage, like a brightly colored scarf, etc. It makes your bag much easier to find and grab.

That's it. Enjoy.
posted by jeanmari at 7:24 AM on April 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

If it isn't too late, don't blow all your budget on a fancy room with a balcony. You won't use it. You'll spend more time outside your room than in, and the "private" balcony butts up to other rooms private balconies on all sides, so it's no more secluded than just sitting on a deck chair. You'll be happier spending it on drinks and activities.
posted by Kellydamnit at 7:30 AM on April 7, 2005

Load up on bottled or canned drinks when you're at a port. Food is included in the price of admission, but onboard, you pay through the nose for sodas and other libations.

Whale sightings are often announced over the intercom. Don't feel bad if you don't see any. On my cruise, I spotted as many mermaids as I did whales, despite a few dozen whale alerts. I'm pretty sure they were just making it up.

Avoid the comedy and magic acts, but do attend the lifevest instructional.

Learn your starboard from your port. Directions to locations are given in nautical terms and you'll be hearing lots of these terms from your wiseass shipmates. You may want to retaliate by singing some sea shanties.
posted by horsewithnoname at 8:01 AM on April 7, 2005

I'll second what jeanmari said about excursions and doing it yourself instead. We were in Tortola (Virgin islands) and avoided an overpriced excursion to the top of the highest peak on the mountain by paying a cabbie 20 bucks to take us instead. No problems.

Also, barring illness, I have no idea how anyone could not have a blast on a cruise, for a couple of reasons. For me, one of the coolest aspects was waking up in the morning and looking out your window to see a different country/island. Very cool. Also, you can really make it your own vacation by doing as much or as little as you want. I found our cruise to be very adaptable to our own personal vacation prefs. You can book a solid day of excursions / ship activities or you can chill on deck or on the beach (if your cruising in a warm climate).

I was on the internet quite a bit on board, just to check out the next island we'd be visiting so, although pricey, worth it imho.

Have fun!

posted by jikel_morten at 8:09 AM on April 7, 2005

As someone who worked as a cruise ship musician for a while--jeanmari got it absolutely right!

Only one thing I'd disagree with: Smuggling alcohol. If you have a real port (not a "private island") in the first day or two of your cruise, order cheap booze from one of the duty-free shops that is usually on or near the port. (And it should be cheaper than it costs you at home.) Most will deliver the booze straight to your stateroom!

And always assume that the Port Lecturer is in the pocket of the shoreside merchants. Maybe not all port lecturers are crooked but there's a li'l quid pro quo here.

On preview: Some of those comedy and magic acts are okay. But be aware that most ship entertainment is geared toward lowest common denominator-- while attempting to be inoffensive. ("Something for dad, something for mom, something for the kids.")
posted by Scooter at 8:11 AM on April 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

oh...and don't stand at the prow of the ship and yell "I'm king of the woooorld..."
I saw this happen on my cruise and I pretty much wanted to die.
posted by horsewithnoname at 8:11 AM on April 7, 2005

one word: relax!

I just was on the disney cruise for spring break. It was wonderful. Just dont lose your ID (not that I did).
posted by Mach5 at 8:26 AM on April 7, 2005

Could not disagree more with Kellydamnit. The balcony was awesome, made the cruise for us. We dragged our cabin's couch out there and had breakfast on the balcony, watching the waves, and it's perhaps the most beautiful memory from the cruise.
posted by GaelFC at 8:52 AM on April 7, 2005

One little niggle on the "Do your own excursion aspect":

If you are on an "official" excursion and are delayed getting back to the ship, the ship will wait for you (at least with Royal Caribbean, in my experience).

If you are on an "unofficial" excursion, the ship will not wait for you.
posted by de void at 8:53 AM on April 7, 2005

Embarkation/debarkation has always gone pretty smooth in my experiences. When you embark, be sure you carry on a bag with a change of clothes and gear to get you through the afternoon. That way you can shower if you like and hit the pool deck right away. Relax, grab a pina colada, and don't get caught up in the hustle and bustle to reserve excursion trips.

Like others have said, there's many options once you hit ports of call, most at competitive price or less than what you'd find on ship. Sometimes I've even opted to stay aboard the ship and relax if the port isn't anything special, since this is the easiest time to get around and relax when everyone's off the ship.

The biggest cost saver: bringing your own booze and mixers, if you're the indulgent type. I've never had any trouble with them in my suitcase, nor bringing back in a bag onto the ship. Some creativity like jeanmarie mentions won't hurt, but I don't think you need to go through drastic measures to smuggle stuff aboard. It isn't prison camp. I'll just return to my stateroom to make a cocktail in a big glass, and carry back down with me. Don't forget to purchase some juices or mixers off ship as well. For some reason fruit juice was harder to come by than alcohol on my last cruise. You can also purchase from duty free on the ship for pretty cheap, but they usually won't deliver to your stateroom until last evening of the cruise.

Lastly, get involved in some shipboard activities and the dining room dinners. It's a great way to meet other fun people.

Enjoy your cruise! You'll be hard pressed to find reasons not to have a great time.
posted by FearTormento at 9:21 AM on April 7, 2005

You might want to check on the cruiseline re: alcohol. I was surprised that they were confiscating all of the alcohol they found! 'specially since I also worked as a musician on another cruiseline in the late '80's. (Emerald Seas out of the Port of Miami.)

But we were traveling on the Pride of Aloha last Christmas (owned by NCL). They were quite aggressive about the "no alcohol" onboard policy. So aggressive that they would not let the duty free shops deliver to rooms and they would open water bottles to check for alcohol. (The first port experience created many disgruntled guests.) All alcohol confiscated was kept in storage until the end of the cruise where you could give a claim check to pick it up. It's good to hear that all cruise lines have not adopted this! We were quite miffed by it.

One more thing...even if you don't get a room with a balcony, try to get one with a window. It makes a load of difference in enjoying the time that you DO spend in the room, IMHO. Especially if you have a time change when you've traveled to your destination.
posted by jeanmari at 9:51 AM on April 7, 2005

Here's NCL's policy on bringing alcohol aboard.

Maybe your cruiseline's website will easily give you the information you need.
posted by jeanmari at 9:54 AM on April 7, 2005

My wife and I went on a cruise to Alaska last summer. We probably wouldn't do a cruise again unless somebody else paid for it. The food wasn't all it was cracked up to be, life on-board ship was generally tedious, and the whole thing seemed to be about getting as much money from the passengers as possible. If we had it to do again, we'd fly to Alaska (or whichever destination), and spend our money on sightseeing, etc.

That being said, we did have fun (just not as much fun as we'd expected), and I have some thoughts:

* Smuggling alcohol didn't seem that difficult, actually. I just used a flask.

* We did regret having purchased all of our exursions through the cruise line because they were so much more expensive than the excursions available at each port (some of which were the exact same excursions). Still, the excursions were the best part of the cruise, no question. Since we'd travelled all this way to a part of the world we'd probably never see again, it seemed a waste not to get out and take advantage of it. When I think of the cruise, I don't think of the ship; I think of the excursions and how much fun they were.

* As I said, I was unimpressed with the food. All my friends had raved about cruise food. I'll admit that there's a lot of it, but quantity does not equal quality. Most of it was standard food service faire. The formal dining room served better stuff, but even it wasn't fantastic. (Better than a family restaurant, but not as good as someplace posh.)

* Most everything on board is way too fucking expensive: alcohol, photographs, video games, and internet.

* We had a room with a balcony, and we actually quite enjoyed it. We didn't spend a lot of time out there, but we were glad to have it when there were whales near the ship, or we were plying the Inside Passage, or when I wanted to smoke my pipe. For some, a balcony may not be worth it. For others, it's a must have. We liked it.

Ah, vacation. I need another one...
posted by jdroth at 9:54 AM on April 7, 2005

Looks like Royal Carribean has this rule as well. And duty free isn't allowed to deliver until the last day of the cruise.

Like you all, I'm floored. Can't understand it. But I'm just sayin' prepared.
posted by jeanmari at 10:01 AM on April 7, 2005

A while back I came across a blog where the person was about to go on her first cruise and wanted advice. Might be of some help to you!
posted by handful of rain at 11:04 AM on April 7, 2005

Some things I've learned from cruises past:

Book your flights home late on disembarkation day. You will be more stressed if you have to be at the airport for a 1 o'clock flight than if you know you have 6 hours to kill. Even if it means spending 6 hours reading a book in an airport.

Carry your cruise schedule around with you on at Sea days. So when it's 2:30 in the afternoon, and you're thinking, 'Wasn't there something I want to do about now?' you can check it and remember that you meant to be taking an exercise class in the gym or a basket weaving class in the lounge.

Go to open seating lunches (or breakfasts if you get up that early). You'll be seated with whoever is in line with you, and the food is better than the buffet, plus you won't overeat as much. The meeting people is the best part, though. Lots of fun conversations at open seating lunch.

Don't feel like you have to do everything, all the time. At sea days are jam packed with stuff to do and you can stress yourself out trying to get to it all. An hour or two spent in the library or on deck in the sun is not a wasted hour.

Go to the spa. Really, it's a totally luxurient treat even when you're on dry land, but it's extra special somehow on a boat.

Open your mind to cheesiness. The entertainment on cruises is cheesy, but it's fun cheesy. You just have to be prepared to accept it for what it is.

Sign up for the classes if they have them. On RCL boats, there's Academy at Sea. They offer free classes in photography, backstage tours for the shows, stuff like that. The best though, was the Hospitality & Beverage class, which was a bartending class. With samples.

Get your picture taken by the photographers every chance you get. Don't actually buy the photographs unless they're spectacular or something, just go to the photo sales center and laugh at them.

Do something you've never done, and can't imagine doing at home. Sing karaoke. Play one of the stage game shows. For me, on the last cruise, it was going to a seminar on Dendrographology.

Don't take bus tours for your shore excursions. If your shore excursion isn't *doing* something, sailing, snorkelling, hiking, whatever, then you could be getting the tour for 1/4 the price on shore and it's not going to make a difference at all. Just go earlier in the day and you won't have to worry about making it back on time. With the activities that tend to range farther afield, and be more active, I feel more comfortable with the official shore excursions for reasons that others have mentioned - especially them being responsible for getting you back to the ship on time.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:32 AM on April 7, 2005

Looks like Royal Carribean has this rule as well. And duty free isn't allowed to deliver until the last day of the cruise.

I'd swear that "no alcohol allowed to be brought on board" is relatively new.

On my last cruise with RCL in late Sep. '04, I distinctly remember the maƮtre d' explaining the "corkage" fee to us at the first night's dinner: A $13 charge to bring your own bottle of wine to your meal.
posted by de void at 11:52 AM on April 7, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, great tips! Thanks very much everyone. (And the blog that handful of rain linked had some good tips too.)

If you have not already read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Well, we depart on Saturday morning, so I'll have to read it from a deck chair on a ship in the Caribbean.

Empty your saline solution bottle into your "collection bottle" in the room


I was surprised that they were confiscating all of the alcohol they found!

The information package that came with our tickets said the same thing: expect luggage searches. Sounds like they're daring me ...
posted by deshead at 4:56 PM on April 7, 2005

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